It’s been 20 years since Cathy Freeman’s historic and pivotal gold medal run in the 400 metres final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Freeman became the first Indigenous Australian to win an individual Olympic gold medal.
The issue of race and connectedness has again been brought into focus through the Black Lives Matter movement, which has highlighted Australian’s own dark history. The win by Cathy Freeman came on the back of 250,000 people participating in a walk across the Harbour Bridge in a protest at the lack of a government apology to Aboriginal people, with Freeman’s victory for many Aboriginal people giving a sense of hope that real change was possible.
But this change has been slow and, 20 years on, the acknowledgement of Australia’s First Nations people still doesn’t exist in the constitution. The Black Lives Matter movement has emphasised that oppression of one is oppression of all, which has been acknowledged by many sporting bodies and teams who have knelt in solidarity.
The awareness shown by sporting individuals and codes has been a rare positive in a year that has challenged the way society operates and connects. But the inaction of both the Australian and English cricket teams during their latest ODI series, where both teams didn’t kneel, emphasises the steps that still need to be taken in opening the closed bubbles many of these elite sporting teams operate within.
Former West Indian cricket captain Michael Holding was particularly critical of both teams, describing the reasons given by each country for not kneeling as “lame” and “flimsy” excuses. Australian captain Aaron Finch defended Australia’s stance by stating that, “Education around it is more important than the protest. For us, we are really proud to play a game where it is celebrated all around the world and anyone can play it”.
English fast bowler Jofra Archer was also vocal in his defence of the English cricket team’s stance, firing back at Holding that, “I’m pretty sure Michael Holding doesn’t know anything that is going on behind the scenes, I don’t think he has spoken to Tom Harrison. It is a bit harsh for Mikey to not do some research before criticising.”
The gesture of taking a knee acts as the unifying symbol that calls for worldwide recognition of discrimination and a history of racism against the ‘other’. Holding’s criticism was not in response to the work being done behind the scenes as Archer suggested but rather the lack of awareness and real understanding from both cricket boards in what the knee symbolises.
“Nobody should have a problem with it. It is a worldwide recognition of calling attention to racial prejudice and injustice,” Holding said.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, comprising an all-white board of directors, has pledged to increase its diversity as well as continue to work in and around the community to support BLM.
Cricket Australia launched the Cricket Connecting Country series, which is aiming to celebrate the Indigenous cultures and multiculturism as Cricket Australia looks to take steps towards greater inclusivity and reconciliation. The connection in Australian between cricket and our First Nations people stems back to the first tour group selected for England back in 1868 – the entire team was made up of Aboriginal players.
Since then, though, there has been a distinct lack of representation from Indigenous Australians with Jason Gillespie becoming the first Aboriginal man to play Test cricket for Australia when he made his Test debut on November 29, 1996 against the West Indies.
The steps taken by the Cricket Australia are positive, but there needs to be more done if our national sport is to truly represent the complete story of Australia, with all-rounder and Wiradjuri man Daniel Christian admitting more needs to be done to educate Australian cricketers at every level, saying, “We just need to educate ourselves and encourage others around us to educate themselves”.
Ignorance and lack of education commonly go hand in hand, and the privileged position of professional sport carries with it the opportunity to break down these social barriers and highlight injustice. Education is, of course, important but without awareness real change does not happen. The ability for someone to visually see a player kneel immediately provokes a question of why they are doing it and the importance of the action.
The long-standing debate that sport and politics do not mix in turn ties into Finch’s comments that as long as sport is multiracial, everything is okay. This is not the case and sporting bodies and players alike must recognise the societal impact they can have.
Sport and racism will always be intrinsically linked as the BLM movement continues its push towards recognition and change. This fight against injustice and awareness, though, will continue to face ignorance, such as comments made by French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet in denial that racism in football exists following accusations made by Neymar after Paris Saint-Germain’s match against Marseille.
The symbolism of kneeling does not take away from any of the work done by individuals and organisations outside the spotlight but demonstrates a strong and unified message that black lives do matter and that we must do more both as individuals and as a society to make sure progress is made.